The annual Perseid meteor shower is now rising to its peak on the mornings of August 12 and 13, 2013. Many people are already reporting plentiful shooting stars, seen in skies around the world. Meanwhile, astronomers at Gemini Observatory say they are utilizing a form of “pollution” from the Perseid meteor shower to aid in a cutting-edge astronomical technology known as Adaptive Optics (AO). They aren’t studying the meteors themselves. Instead, they’re using gases left behind by the meteors as they burn up high in the Earth’s atmosphere, to help them create artificial guide stars for their AO system. Gemini Observatory’s Chad Trujillo said in a press release that the gases left by the Perseids are:
… a form of natural pollution. [It] doesn’t actually pose a threat to humanity … it’s been around for eons and seems to have had no adverse effect … but it’s a real boon to astronomers.
One of the gases left behind by meteors is sodium, which collects in a layer about 60 miles (90 kilometers) above the Earth. The reason astronomers are so fond of this particular pollution layer is because we can make it glow by using a sodium laser to excite this sodium and produce temporary, artificial stars wherever we like.
Astronomers use these artificial stars, called laser-guide-stars, for Adaptive Optics systems such as that at the Gemini South telescope in Chile. Adaptive Optics allows scientists to see the universe more clearly than previously. The guide stars are used to help calibrate the system, that is, to provide a standard with which other readings can be correlated, in order to check the instrument’s accuracy.
Bottom line: These days, you don’t often hear of professional astronomers conducting studies of annual meteor showers. These showers have been seen for thousands of years and, nowadays, are more for enjoyment than science. But astronomers at Gemini Observatory say they are using gases left behind by this weekend’s Perseid meteors to create artificial guide stars for their Adaptive Optics system.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.